A few weeks back, one of my coworkers shared a photo from her wedding day. In it, she was gazing fondly at her new husband, her mouth open in what was clearly a grin-turned-laugh, while he looked backed at her, smiling warmly.
“What a wonderful picture,” I said. “It perfectly captures a moment of joy and laughter.”
“Thanks,” she replied. “We had lots of both that day.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s exactly what every wedding needs.” I paused. “Come to think of it,” I added, “it’s also about two-thirds of what every marriage needs.”
I wasn’t thinking mathematically at the time. I didn’t (and don’t) mean to suggest that joy and laughter are actually 66.67 percent of what a marriage needs. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that, really, if you were going to try to make a relationship work with only three ingredients, joy and laughter would be pretty good ones to start with.
Ingredient #1: Joy
For a relationship to work, you have to bring joy to each other–and you have to enjoy doing it. Not just on big days, like your wedding, but on regular, mundane days, too. You have to recognize what makes your spouse happy, whether it’s watching soccer on Saturday mornings, listening to Christopher Cross radio, or going on a “Game of Thrones” binge together with bowls of chocolate-peanut butter ice cream. Then you have to help create a world where such “little” joys are realized regularly, where they aren’t overrun by the never-ending maintenance work of life.
You don’t have to participate in each and every one of your partner’s joys. You don’t even have to enjoy all of the same things. You just have to find your partner’s joy joyful (the opposite, you’ll note, of resenting them for it). You also don’t have to make your partner joyful all the time: No one can make you happy all the time; and you can’t work that magic for anyone else, either.
What you can and should do, I’d suggest, is seek to create a world where your partner’s joys can flourish. If you’re lucky and in the right relationship, your partner will do the same for you. And you’ll wind up creating a world together that contains multiple streaks of joy for each of you as well as someone to share them with.
Sadly, this won’t bring either of you perpetual, all-consuming happiness. That isn’t the point here, and it won’t ever happen (at least not in this world). The point here is just that you need to tend to the joys in life—your own and your partner’s—and attend to them when they appear. Which brings us to our second ingredient …
Ingredient #2: Laughter
A successful marriage has to include lots of laughing with each other. Just as surely, it has to include at least a little bit of laughing at each other—not in spite or anger or reproach, but in the manner of friends who can tease each other right up to the point of real discomfort. It also has to include a fair amount of both of you laughing at yourselves and at the things you do together, at the “couplehood” you come to inhabit.
I’ve thought for some time that a corollary to the old canard “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” ought to be “if you can’t laugh at yourself, don’t laugh at anyone else, either.” And nowhere is this more true than in the context of a loving relationship. In the grand scheme of things, there’s something a little absurd about couplehood–about unwavering loyalty, unapologetic passion, and all that fairytale true love stuff. And to know this and laugh and love nonetheless–as in, literally, not a single jot less–is to touch a sort of truth that transcends comprehension.
In short, you need to be able to laugh at the silly things you do, at the silly things your partner does, at the silly things you do as a couple, and—critically—at pretty much the rest of the world as well. Life is hard enough to require a good sense of humor. Good relationships are impossible without one.
And the Third Ingredient?
If I had to pick just one more ingredient for a good marriage, it might well be “grit.” After all, life is going to throw all kinds of stuff at you that undercuts joy and isn’t the least bit laughable. Not to mention all the stuff that’s just work, work, work. And the way to get through it all is generally just to buckle down and keep going.
Success in marriage doesn’t mean you’ll get it right every minute of every day. As much as anything, it just means that you’ll continue to find ways to make it work. And to do that, you’ll need to keep cultivating joys and finding ways to share laughs–even on the darkest days and when the work to be done isn’t pleasant at all.
If you can both do that, you’ll wind up better, happier, healthier people than you otherwise would be. It won’t be the case that two-thirds of your life together will be joy and laughter. The real-world numbers just don’t add up that way. But it will be the case that the gritty times will feel less harsh, and that you’ll know where to look for joys on even the darkest days. Even in the midst of sadness, you’ll remember how to laugh till it hurts, having practiced it often and much. Most importantly, you’ll have a partner. A hand to hold. A source of the joy, the laughter, and the grit it takes to get through.